According to the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Health and Human Services, nutrient dense foods are foods that provide a large amount of nutrients but have relatively few calories. While you may have never heard the term nutrient density before, you are probably already familiar with the concept. There are many ways in which health experts describe the idea of eating a nutrient dense diet. For example, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of the book “Eat to Live,” coined the term “nutritious.” I love this term. A nutritive describes someone who chooses food based on their micronutrient content per calorie.
In other words, a nutritious person does not bother to count calories, eat only low-fat foods or follow a raw food diet. Nor does a nutritious follow a “one size fits all” diet plan or theory. Rather, nutritionists focus on eating a variety of unprocessed whole foods to feel satisfied and stay healthy. According to Dr. Fuhrman, your health is predicted by your nutrient intake divided by your calorie intake. He and many other health authorities, such as the United States Department of Agriculture, believe that the overall quality of people’s diets depends on factors, including:
- The level of micronutrients and macronutrients obtained by calorie they consume.
- If you continuously ingest an adequate amount of calories (in the form of macronutrients) to meet your individual needs. This means the ability to avoid excessive calorie intake, but also to avoid insufficient intake or nutrient deficiencies.
- Avoid toxic substances, such as trans fats, sodium and refined sugars.
- A complete diet, largely unprocessed, is superior to taking supplements and consuming a processed diet because real foods have complex chemical structures that are very difficult to replicate.
- For example, the antioxidants and phytochemicals found in many plant foods support the immune system, the body’s detoxification processes and cell repair, and the nutrient-dense foods that I present in this article are some of the healthiest and most beneficial foods of the planet.
What is Nutrient Density?
Nutrient-dense foods are real and not processed instead of being chemically altered, man-made or filled with synthetic ingredients. The nutrients found in healthy and whole foods include micronutrients such as essential vitamins, trace elements and electrolytes, as well as macronutrients, such as carbohydrates (both “simple” and “complex”), proteins (amino acids) and different types of healthy fats. While whole foods provide many essential nutrients, all with a low-price “price”, processed foods tend to offer the opposite – many “empty calories” but little real nutritional benefit in return. Author and lecturer Michael Pollan notes that there are 80,000 known edible plant foods, some 3,000 of which have been, or continue to be, commonly used in the human diet. However, more than 60 percent of calorie intake worldwide consists of only four highly subsidized industrialized crops: corn, rice, soybeans and wheat. This is a problem because it means that people get many of their daily calories from foods that do not offer many nutrients.
Although certain staple crops may provide some vitamins, minerals or fiber – for example, common foods such as potatoes or wild rice – they do not provide the amount that nutrient dense foods provide. Here’s another way to see it: In terms of the amount of nutrients you would get per calorie consumed, 600 calories of fast-food fries is obviously not the same as 600 calories of kale. Along the same lines, 600 calories of brown rice is NOT the same as 600 calories of kale. Of course, brown rice is a natural food, but it is also much less nutrient dense than kale (and a lot of other foods as well). On Dr. Fuhrman’s “Nutrient Density Scale”, oatmeal has a score of 53. To give some perspective, you would have to eat four bowls of oatmeal to match the nutrient density of just one bowl of strawberries. And you would have to eat about 20 bowls of oatmeal to get the equivalent nutrients from a bowl of cabbage.
The Nutrient Degradation Problem:
It is a well-known fact that many Americans do not eat enough fruits and vegetables every day, but even among those who do, they may not get all the nutrients they could expect. Nutrient degradation describes the loss of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in food due to factors such as soil depletion, manufacturing, processing and transportation of food and, to a lesser extent, cooking and heating of food. In 2002, an analysis of Canadian supermarkets produced by The Globe and Mail and CTV News found that nutrient levels had fallen dramatically in fruits and vegetables during the course of only one generation. Comparing changes in nutrient levels over a period of 50 years, analysts found that the average supermarket potato had lost:
- 100 percent of your vitamin A
- 57 percent of your vitamin C and iron
- 50 percent of your riboflavin
- 28 percent of your calcium
- 18 percent of your thiamine
Twenty-five fruits and vegetables were analyzed with similar results. Broccoli is thought to be one of the most popular superfoods and yet, according to some research, today’s broccoli can be around 63 percent lower in calcium and 34 percent lower in iron than in previous centuries. Agronomist Phil Warman says that modern agricultural practices and market emphasis are primarily responsible for nutrient degradation. According to his research, “the emphasis is on appearance, storage and transportability, and there has been much less emphasis on the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables.”
“High-yield production and disease resistance are much more important for food producers today, says Warman, than the nutritional content of food”.
British professor Tim Lang agrees: “It’s a matter of consumer rights. We think of an orange as a constant, but the reality is that it is not ». You would have to eat five oranges today to get the iron that your grandmother got from just one and about eight oranges to get the same amount of vitamin A.
How Soil Depletion Causes Low Nutrient Density:
An important problem regarding nutrient density is the fact that industrial farms are producing crops on soils that have decreasing levels of nutrients. Reporter Tom Paulson calls it “the thin brown line,” the three feet of topsoil that covers the Earth and sustains life. This living biological matrix contains the essential compounds that plants convert into usable nutrients and, however, the National Academy of Sciences reports that the soil of American crops is being eroded at a rate 10 times higher than that which can replenish itself. . The surface layer of the soil grows again at the rate of an inch or two over hundreds of years, but industrial agriculture is interfering with the process, says geologist David Montgomery. «The estimate is that we are now losing about 1% of our surface soil layer each year due to erosion, most of which is caused by agriculture. Globally, it is quite clear that we are running out of land ». This degradation of the soil across the planet is contributing to the rapid increase in cases of malnutrition, the United Nations warns. The cultivation methods used by industrial agriculture leave little time for the soil to recover. Montgomery calls this “soil mining.”
This is one reason why I often recommend certain supplements for people. Food should always be your first line of defense, and then supplements can do just that – help supplement your diet. Although the nutrient content of certain foods may be lower than in previous times, this does not mean that you should stop eating them. It means that more than ever it is important to make the most of the calories you consume. One way to increase nutrient intake is to buy seasonal, local and organic products (more information below).
The Best Nutrient Dense Foods:
Dr. Fuhrman created his own formula and nutrient density scale that are currently pending patent. It uses 20 different nutrients – including essential vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, fiber and ORAC scores (antioxidants) – to create a nutrient density standard by which to measure different foods. However, Dr. Fuhrman’s classification system excludes certain nutrients. The following list uses a combination of its classification system along with the inclusion of nutrients that we are excluded from its classification system.
Some of the Nutrient Dense Foods Available to Us Include:
- Beef and chicken liver
- Green leafy vegetables (such as kale, kale, spinach, bok choy, cabbage and romaine lettuce)
- Red, yellow, green and orange peppers
- Broccoli, cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage or Brussels sprouts
- Carrots and parsnips
- Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and other berries
- Sea vegetables
- Almost any other unprocessed plant food
In addition to fruits and vegetables, other whole foods also have high nutrient density values. Examples include wild-caught fish, cageless eggs, beans and peas, raw nuts and seeds, lean meats and grass-fed poultry, and old or whole grains. As for the main nutrient dense foods in the world, here the first 30 nutrient dense foods around:
- Liver (Beef and Chicken)
- Kale, cabbage and green dandelion
- Arabian Broccoli
- Exotic berries: açaí, goji, camu camu
- Spinach, watercress and arugula
- Broccoli and Cauliflower
- Red peppers
- Berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)
- Wild Salmon and Sardines
- Bone broth
- Grass-fed beef
- Green beans
- Egg yolks
- Wild mushrooms
- Seeds: pumpkin, sunflower, chia and flax
- Raw Cheese and Kefir
- Black beans
- Wild rice
Benefits of Nutrient Dense Foods:
- In addition to preventing nutrient deficiencies, eating more whole foods is beneficial for maintaining a healthy weight. When you repeatedly choose foods that contain fewer calories in each bite, it naturally reduces the overall caloric density of your diet.
- This helps you get all the essential vitamins and minerals you need without feeling hungry or deprived, and also prevents excessive calorie intake and weight gain.
- A great advantage of following a nutrient dense diet is that you can maintain a healthy weight without eliminating any particular food or group of foods, following any fad diet or counting calories.
- It is much easier to consume an adequate amount of calories, even without restriction, when processed foods with high sugar, chemicals, sodium and additives are simply reduced or eliminated from the diet.
- In fact, because nutrient dense foods are low in calories to start (because they tend to have a lot of fiber, water and no additives), you may be able to eat MORE foods but still lose weight in the process.
- Healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits and, in moderation, legumes, beans or whole grains are very bulky and full, so it is not easy to overeat.
Putting Nutrient Density into Practice:
- Although nutrient density scores are very useful for choosing healthy foods, they are not the only thing you should consider. For example, if you ate only foods high in the nutrient density scale, your diet would be too low in healthy fats.
- If a very active person ate only nutrient-rich foods, he would eat too much fiber and not eat enough calories every day.
- In reality, this would be detrimental to the person’s health, contributing to malnutrition, low energy levels, decreased metabolic rate, weakness and problems related to mood.
- As in all things, there is no magic formula when it comes to eating a healthy diet. Food fashions are not wagons where no one should jump without enough information. Many protective antioxidant phytonutrients are still “unnamed and unmeasured,” so they can only be obtained by eating a variety of the most nutrient dense foods in nature.
- We can also assume that foods that contain the highest amounts of known nutrients (such as green leafy vegetables and berries, for example) probably also contain the greatest number of beneficial, but unknown, compounds.
- Eat a variety of real foods that you enjoy from all the different food groups (including healthy proteins and fats, in addition to plants), and you should already be on your way to eating a nutrient dense and balanced diet.
- Try to think positively about the types of foods you should be eating, instead of focusing on those that you should not have eaten. And above all, practice self-awareness paying attention to how your dietary choices make you feel.
- Each person is a little different, so it is up to you to decide what exact type of diet ultimately serves you best.
Purchase of Organic Products:
- Buying organic products is definitely a step in the right direction to avoid dangerous chemicals, pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms. But buying organic products is not always necessary, nor is it always your best option in terms of increasing the nutrient density of your diet.
- Organic farmers cannot completely avoid widespread pollutants in the air, soil and water. There is also concern that the purchase of organic products may have certain disadvantages, especially when organic foods are sent far away.
- Organic foods can often travel great distances to reach the supermarket, which means that the food has lost part of its nutritional value during transit time and has contributed to a greater carbon footprint.
- Although I recommend buying organic foods when possible, I think it is equally (or even more) important to buy fresh local foods. Ideally, we would all have access to local, organic and nutrient-rich foods throughout the year, but that is not always possible.
- Instead of trying to be perfect, do your best. Shop at farmer’s markets, join a community-sponsored farming group or, in the warmer months of the year, consider growing some organic foods yourself. In my opinion, that’s the best way to do it.
Precautions Regarding Nutrient Dense Foods:
- One thing to keep in mind regarding nutrient density is the tendency of people to simplify foods too much in the human diet.
- Foods cannot necessarily be quantified and classified based solely on their individual nutrients. Pollan says that “nutritionism” is not the same as nutrition.
- Nutritionism is an ideology. It is based on the assumption that the key to understanding food is to identify individual nutrients and their effects on health.
- This ideology is behind the commercial success of processed foods, says Pollan, because processed foods may contain synthetic vitamins (such as synthetically added riboflavin or thiamine found in fortified flour), but this does not make them healthy.
- When food is quantified according to the basic nutrients they contain, instead of considering the complex combination of compounds found in whole foods, the overall picture is lost sight of.
- In other words: It is easy to stick a label on a cereal box saying that the product is “high in omega-3” or label a quarter gallon of homogenized and pasteurized milk as “low fat.” But of course this does not necessarily make that product good for you! You want to concentrate on getting the nutrients in your body in the natural way as much as possible.
Final Thoughts on Nutrient Dense Foods:
- Nutrient dense foods are real and unprocessed, unlike chemically altered, man-made foods or stuffed with synthetic ingredients. They provide many vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants, but they are low in calories.
- Nowadays, it can be difficult to get all the nutrients you need due to factors such as mass production of processed foods, soil depletion and difficulty in obtaining fresh, organic and local foods.
- Some of the best ways to increase the nutrient density of your diet include buying seasonal / local products, growing your own garden and eating healthier foods such as leafy green vegetables, berries and all kinds of non-vegetables starched.